You, me, the music, and me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

ROBERT FRIPP God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners

Polydor PD-1-6266 (1980)

British guitarist Robert Fripp is what many people would call an eccentric. He has developed many of his own theories on music and the guitar (inventing his own tuning and way of teaching and playing known as Guitar Craft) and on the economics that go along with being a recording and touring musician. But the most unusual facet of Fripp's personality (at least to other musicians) is that he seems to enjoy practicing. A lot. The first time I heard Fripp was on an album appropriately titled Discipline by English progressive-rock legends King Crimson (of which Fripp is the only remaining original member); it took me several minutes to realize that the incredibly fast and clean lines on the track "Frame by Frame" were not being produced by a sampler or sequencer but by Fripp's own fingers.

God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners is sort of a double-album on one disc; one side is labelled "side A" and is titled God Save the Queen, while the other side says "side one" and bears the title Under Heavy Manners. God Save the Queen is a live demonstration of Frippertronics, Fripp's technique of using tape loops and delay on his guitar, creating a soothing, repetitive music that sounds like Jimi Hendrix playing underwater while accompanied by dolphins. The title track resulted from an audience member calling out a request for "The Star-Spangled Banner" to commemorate what was then the tenth anniversary of Woodstock. Fripp politely replied that since another guitarist before him had already done that, and since Fripp was British, it might be more appropriate for him to play the British national anthem instead.

Under Heavy Manners begins with the title track, which is the only vocal track on the album and features a memorable performance by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (credited in the liner notes as "Absalm El Habib") in which he screams a bunch of words ending in "-ism" and generally works himself into a frenzy. "The Zero of the Signified" combines more Frippertronics with another one of those incredible repeating guitar patterns by Fripp that goes on for nearly thirteen minutes. Both tracks feature Buster Jones on bass and Paul Duskin on drums and are examples of what Fripp refers to as "Discotronics", a funkier, more danceable version of Frippertronics.

Robert Fripp continues to record and tour prolifically, both with King Crimson and on his own. (Last year, he toured with hard rock guitar idols Joe Satriani and Steve Vai on their G3 tour.) Anyone who loves the guitar will find something to appreciate about Fripp's music (and anyone who hates to practice will hopefully be inspired).

Monday, November 28, 2005


Columbia FC 39429 (1984)

In the liner notes to the CD reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, Elvis Costello writes, "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album." Not much of a sales pitch, you may be thinking, but an honest admission nonetheless from a singer/songwriter famous for his sharp, pointed words. Costello's ninth album was largely savaged by critics for its sterile production by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners), but it's actually far from terrible, and contains some of his smartest songs.

1984 wasn't a great year for Costello; his marriage was breaking up, he was feuding with his bandmates, and his record company was pressuring him for a more commercial sound on his next album. He had just finished a solo tour in which he played many of his new songs with just piano or guitar accompaniment (some of which can be heard as bonus live cuts on the album's CD reissue), and at one point he considered recording this album that way. Columbia had other ideas, of course, and paired him with the British hit-making team of Langer/Winstanley, producing some odd results. "Room With No Number" is a harrowing tale of adultery and deception that gets tangled up in clattery percussion and busy piano tinkling, and it basically goes by too quickly for the lyrics to fully register. "The Only Flame in Town", a duet with Daryl Hall, was a medium-sized hit, but its syrupy, synthesized strings and upbeat production contradict its dark portrait of a man trying to justify his cheating ways. "The Comedians" contains some of Costello's most cryptically caustic lyrics (and was later covered by Roy Orbison) but is sabotaged by the overly perky arrangement. (The fact that the song is about a man who is unsure of who his real friends are shouldn't be lost on anyone.)

Not everything is a misfire, however; "Peace in Our Time" is a biting anti-war ballad with a spare, tasteful arrangement that takes a swipe at then-President Ronald Reagan ("There's already one spaceman in the White House/what do you want another one for?"); according to critic Robert Christgau, Costello nearly got booed off the stage of the Tonight Show while performing it. "The Deportees Club" is a fiery rocker that bravely fights off synths right and left with guitars blazing, and "I Wanna Be Loved" is an undeniable classic, the one point on the album where the production works for the song instead of against it; Costello's mawkish self-pity is buoyed by waves of synthesizers and female voices cooing in the background, and the lyrics are some of the most straightforward he's ever written.

Costello would bounce back strongly in 1986 with a pair of brilliant albums (King of America and Blood & Chocolate) that rank among his best, but Goodbye Cruel World should be remembered as more than just another eighties misfire; the album is full of great songs, but you may need to dig through a few layers of (over-)production in order to find them.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Swan Song 79 00511 (1982)

As hard as it may be to believe, there was a time in the not too distant past when it was considered not cool to like Led Zeppelin. The four-man blooze-metal outfit from Britain was never a critics' favourite during its lifetime, and by the time punk rock broke out in the late seventies, Zep was considered out of touch with current musical trends and was being referred to as a "dinosaur" band. How ironic, then, that punk rock should eventually give birth to "alternative" music, in turn paving the way for the "grunge" sound of the nineties, which owed a heavy sonic debt to... Led Zeppelin!

Coda is an odds-and-sods compilation released after the death of drummer John Bonham, which effectively ended the band's career together. I'd like to take this opportunity to note that, in my opinion, the fact that the band didn't try to continue on with a replacement shows a lot of class. The fact that the remaining members never, ever worked together again under the name Led Zeppelin shows even more class. (Are you listening, Pete Townshend?) The album feels like a loving memorial to Bonham's memory; his drums are front and center in the mix, and "Bonzo's Montreux" is a solo track credited to the "John Bonham Drum Orchestra" with electronic treatments by guitarist/producer Jimmy Page (whose production work on this album is absolutely terrific; every track sparkles and slams).

Usually with albums like Coda there is a fair amount of throwaway material to be found, but every song on this album is a keeper; "We're Gonna Groove" is a barn-burner recorded in 1969 that actually cuts most of the music on their good-but-generally-overrated self-titled first album, while "Walter's Walk" is an ominous rocker from 1972 that features a stunning minimalist solo by Page that shows what the right guitarist can do with only four notes. There's a raucous, almost drunken-sounding rehearsal take of "I Can't Quit You Baby", recorded during sound check at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970, that once again outdoes the original. "Wearing and Tearing" (from 1978, probably recorded during the sessions for In Through the Out Door, their last proper studio album) is a stomper that slams so hard near the end it sounds like it could fly apart at any minute, with singer Robert Plant screaming "Medication! Medication!" amidst a dizzying whirl of guitars and drums.

For their last hurrah, Led Zeppelin managed to put together a final album that could stand proudly with their previous output and that provided a fitting epitaph to their career together. They also showed that they could play just as hard and fast as any band of that era. Not bad for a bunch of dinosaurs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

VARIOUS ARTISTS "That's the Way I Feel Now" A Tribute to Thelonious Monk

A&M SP 96600 (1984)

Ah, the tribute album. Anyone who regularly visited record stores during the late eighties to mid-nineties has seen more than their fair share of these. Basically a collection of cover versions of a single performer's or band's songs, the tribute album treatment has been given to everyone from the Beatles and Pink Floyd to Sonny Bono and Ace Frehley. A massive number of tribute albums remain in print to this day, nearly enough to form a genre of their own. The credit (or blame) for this can probably be laid at the feet of producer Hal Willner. In 1981, the former Saturday Night Live bandleader produced Amarcord Nina Rota, an album of Nina Rota's music (originally written for the films of Federico Fellini) interpreted by jazzers like Bill Frisell, Carla Bley, and Wynton Marsalis. Many consider that album to be the first modern tribute album, and several more from Willner would follow, with subjects such as Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, and jazz piano genius Thelonious Sphere Monk.

This double LP features a wide array of artists in a variety of combinations, from the solo saxophone of Monk disciple Steve Lacy on "Gallop's Gallop" to the sixteen-piece orchestra on Joe Jackson's version of "'Round Midnight". Randy Weston and Dr.John bring their signature pianistics to, respectively, "Functional" and "Blue Monk", while Mark Bingham, Brenden Harkein and John Scofield mount a triple-guitar attack on "Brilliant Corners" and "Jackie-ing". John Zorn contributes a predictably loony reading of "Shuffle Boil" (complete with duck calls) while vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Bob Dorough team up on a quietly swinging "Friday the Thirteenth". A number of non-jazzers get in on the action, too; Todd Rundgren plays a jaunty, synthesized rendition of "Four in One" and NRBQ rock out on "Little Rootie Tootie". Shockabilly play a spooky, distorted version of "Criss Cross", and guitarists Chris Spedding and Peter Frampton (yes, that Peter Frampton) turn in a surprisingly catchy and effective "Work".

The best tribute albums are the ones that show us the durability of an artist's work; the ability of a performer's work to be adapted to a number of different styles and genres proves just how versatile that performer is. The music on That's the Way shows us the universality of Monk's artistry (not to mention Hal Willner's), and that's what makes it a fitting tribute to a worthy genius.

Monday, November 21, 2005


ECM-2-1180 (1980)

Listening to guitarist Pat Metheny's recorded output over the years makes me wonder if there are actually two Pat Methenys; one who makes breezy, melodically appealing smooth jazz and had a top 40 hit with David Bowie, and another one who makes daring free-form jazz and likes to wail alongside Ornette Coleman. Most of his fans would probably agree that, yes, there are two Pat Methenys, and they reside in the same body with the same creative mind and the same fleet fingers. Many would also say that these two beings aren't all that different in their tastes and sensibilities, and that having both of them around provides a nice balance. Others may like one Pat but have no use for the other. Whatever your opinion may be, there's probably something for you on 80/81, no matter what type of Pat Metheny fan you are.

80/81 is a double album on the ECM label from 1980 that showcases both sides of Metheny's artistry. Sides one and four feature the lighter, jazz-pop fare of "Two Folk Songs" (the latter of which spotlights Charlie Haden's nimble bass playing) and "Every Day (I Thank You)", on which tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker lays down a solo that wouldn't sound out of place on most smooth jazz radio stations (let alone some pop/light rock ones). Sides two and three are more adventurous and playful; avant saxist Dewey Redman lends his raunchy tone to the title track, and he trades riffs with Brecker on "The Bat" and "Pretty Scattered". "Open" is a collective group improvisation that prominently features the imaginative percussion of Jack DeJohnette. "Turnaround" is a guitar/bass/drums cover of the popular blues by Ornette Coleman, who was a major influence on Metheny's freer music in the eighties (and who, like Metheny, has an appreciation for both the pretty melody and the free-jazz freakout).

Metheny's later releases tend to stick to one style or the other, so if you'd like to sample both for the price of one album, 80/81 is a great place to check out the music of both Pat Methenys. (Warning: early CD issues of this album omit the tracks "Open" and "Pretty Scattered" so as to fit all the music onto one CD. Later double-CD reissues correct this problem.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

HUSKER DU Zen Arcade

SST 027 (1984)

Everyone has an album or band that speaks to them and feels like "theirs", especially when they're growing up. For me, the band was Husker Du, and the album was Zen Arcade, a double LP that I first bought in cassette form when I was about eighteen or nineteen and (much) later tracked down on vinyl. It's a song cycle in the tradition of albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia by The Who (another band that many people claim as "theirs").

Husker Du were a trio of musicians from Minneapolis, Minnesota, home of Prince. At the same time Prince was immortalizing the city's music scene in the film and album Purple Rain, Husker Du (along with fellow Minneapolis residents the Replacements) were helping to create what we call "alternative" music with their blend of Beatlesque power-pop and Ramoneslike punk thrash. Their influence can be heard today in the music of bands like Blink-182, Green Day, and most any "emo" band you could name.

Husker Du were Bob Mould (vocals, guitar), Grant Hart (vocals, drums), and Greg Norton (bass). Mould and Hart shared songwriting duties and each sang the songs that they wrote. The stark, harrowing, confessional tone of Mould's writing contrasted nicely with Hart's slightly poppier love songs, leading many critics to call them the Lennon and McCartney of the postpunk era. Side two of this album certainly contains the angriest, most cathartic music this side of Plastic Ono Band, with Mould screaming his way through "Beyond the Threshold" and "I'll Never Forget You" and the band literally throwing chairs around the studio on "Pride". Hart's "Pink Turns to Blue" and "Never Talking to You Again" provide melodic respite, despite the songs' tales of relationships gone horribly wrong.

Zen Arcade was recorded very quickly, with nearly every track a first take. The liner notes state that "the whole thing took about 85 hours, the last 40 hours straight for mixing". As a result, the production is not exactly what you'd call pristine (even by indie rock standards) but the performances are passionate and first-rate throughout. If the words to songs like "Chartered Trips" and "Newest Industry" fly by a bit too quickly and sound a bit muffled, their meaning comes through loud and clear in the passion of the band's delivery.

The group was eager to confound people's expectations as to what a punk band should sound like, filling the album with unexpected touches such as the ambient soundwashes of "The Tooth Fairy and the Princess", the piano interludes "One Step at a Time" and "Monday Will Never Be the Same", and the acoustic ballad "Never Talking to You Again" (acoustic guitars were still a rarity on punk records in the days before Green Day!). The final track, "Reoccuring Dreams", is a nearly fourteen-minute instrumental spotlighting Mould's wailing guitar solos (heresy to any punk fan who swore by the two-minute limit on songs). Musically, Husker Du seemed more interested in rebelling against their peers than the status quo, if only because they didn't want anyone setting any rules or boundaries for them.

Listening to this album nearly twenty years after I first heard it, I'm struck by how relevant it still feels, especially on a personal level. The songs about broken families and social displacement resonate just as deeply as they did when I was a teenager, and the music hasn't aged one bit. The emotions expressed in Zen Arcade are both universal and timeless; even half a lifetime later, the music of Husker Du still feels like it's "mine".

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Oh, yeah...

... I've fixed it so that anyone can post comments, not just fellow bloggers. The spamgates are opened!

ANNA RUSSELL The Anna Russell Album?

CBS Masterworks MG 31199 (1972)

The voice of Anna Russell is a voice that comes to us once in a century, or possibly never at all. Anyway, it's very rare.

- from the liner notes by Charles Burr

Anna Russell is the Victor Borge of singers. A classically trained lyric soprano who has sung with many of the world's most respected symphony orchestras, her special talent is the ability to lovingly lampoon the various cliches and idiosyncracies of opera and classical music with which she is so familiar. Anyone who has taken a voice lesson or attended a master class will immediately recognize the subjects of her satire.

The Anna Russell Album? is a double LP set compiling two of her earlier releases, Anna Russell Sings? and Anna Russell Sings! Again? The first record is a tutorial for singers in which Ms. Russell advises aspiring vocalists on choosing repertoire best suited to their limitations. While introducing "Ah, Lover! from the operetta 'The Prince of Philadelphia'" she states: "The next example is for the singer who can't count and who has one or two loud notes at either end of the voice and nothing much in the middle." According to her, the piece is perfect for singers who have "resonance where (their) brains ought to be". "Schlumph" and "Je n'ai pas la plume de ma tante" are perfect parodies of, respectively, the German lied and the French art song, and are recommended to "singers with tremendous artistry but no voice".

On the second record, Russell attempts an analysis of "The Ring of the Nibelungs", Richard Wagner's massive opera cycle. Russell's aim is to condense the twenty-plus hours of Wagner's epic into a more manageable twenty or so minutes to give frightened concertgoers the general gist of the story. Hence, the Rhine maidens are referred to as "a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters" and Siegfried is "a regular Li'l Abner type". Finally, in "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera", she provides a point-by-point procedure for writing your very own light operetta in the style of the famed British duo, exposing every cliche of British musical theater in the process ("This character always does a little dance and an encore whether you want him to or not.").

Even if you're not a musicologist, Anna Russell will probably make you laugh with her send-ups of the foibles and pretensions of classical music. As the liner notes state; "... you can know nothing about Wagner and still understand the beauty of the take-off (or is it put-on?). She lets you know that SHE knows, even if you don't. And that's great art."

Monday, November 14, 2005

KEITH JARRETT Standards, Vol. 2

ECM 1289 (1985)

Put three of the world's best jazz musicians in a room together and ask them to play their favourite songs and you can be reasonably sure you'll get some fine jazz music. If those three musicians just happen to be pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, it's guaranteed. Have those musicians play together for over twenty years, exploring the American jazz songbook and developing a telepathy that allows them to play almost as one musician, and you have the Standards Trio, whom many have called the best piano trio working today, maybe even the best ever.

In 1983, Jarrett called Peacock and DeJohnette and asked them if they'd be interested in recording an album of jazz standards. They went into the studio with no rehearsal, just a list of songs that Jarrett had compiled. They would simply pick a tune, roll tape, and play it. The result was two volumes of Standards, a pair of albums that showcased the affinities of the trio for improvisation, the American song form, and each other.

Standards, Vol. 2 is an excellent snapshot of the group in its genesis. Listening to it today and comparing it with the group's later (mostly live) albums, it's apparent that the trio hadn't yet achieved the symbiotic "mind-meld" that makes their concerts into fascinating displays of musical empathy. There are no great revelations in these renditions, but there is still a sense of familiarity in the interplay between the musicians. Check out the soft, clackety percussion beneath Peacock's solo on "So Tender", which is gradually joined by Jarrett's piano and then repeated in the fade. Or "Moon and Sand", during which all three act as soloists yet maintain the momentum of the song. It's fitting that, even though the album was released under Jarrett's name, the names of the three musicians are printed in equal size on the cover, a practice that continues to this day. On their recordings and in their concerts, every member of the Standards Trio acts as a leader and an accompanist, often at the same time.

The group continues to record and tour extensively. Live, the group plays without a set list; one member will start a tune and the others will fall in behind. It's that off-the-cuff, just-friends-jamming feel that continue to make the Standards Trio's music special and enjoyable.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Short Note

Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who has been reading; a special thanks to everyone who has posted in the comments sections or offered their opinions of the blog otherwise. The response has been pretty positive so far, and I've been having a lot of fun with it.

The next update should be up by midday tomorrow. I seemed to have settled comfortably into a Monday-Wednesday-Friday kind of schedule, so that's probably the way it will stay for now.

I've added some more links, so feel free to explore.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Impulse! A-9138 (1966)

If I ever make it down to San Francisco, one of the first places I want to visit is St. John's African Orthodox Church, more commonly known as the Church of John Coltrane. Since 1971, this church has led services in which the main instrument of praise is not a sermon or homily but is Coltrane's music. The congregation views Coltrane as a saint, a man who was put on this earth for a short time to spread God's word through his saxophone.

If Coltrane can be viewed as a Christlike figure, then Pharoah Sanders was one of his most ardent disciples. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanders took up the saxophone while still in high school and was soon playing gigs around town with blues legends like Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker. He eventually moved to New York, where he caught the ear of Coltrane, who asked him to sit in with his band in 1964. Sanders made several recordings with Coltrane and was instantly identifiable by his vocal, screaming sound on the sax.

Tauhid was one of his first recordings as a leader and his first for the Impulse! label, which had released most of Coltrane's more "avant-garde" albums. On the record, Sanders lets the pieces build naturally through the interaction of the band; his tenor sax is not heard until the final minutes of the sidelong "Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt" (and not at all on the brief "Japan", which instead features a haunting, wordless vocal by Sanders). The percussion of Nat Bettis and drummer Roger Blank is heard prominently on these tracks, lending the music a distinct Eastern feel. The final track is a medley of three pieces and is the closest thing to a "traditional" free jazz freakout; "Aum" features a blistering slide guitar solo* from Sonny Sharrock (who made his recording debut with this album) while "Venus" and "Capricorn Rising" are reflective yet intense ballads that showcase Sanders gritty, wailing technique. Pianist Dave Burrell and bassist Henry Grimes round out the sextet, providing support throughout the band's wilder flights of fancy.

Pharoah Sanders still records and performs today and has grown gracefully into the role of elder statesman of jazz. His tone has become slightly more polished but has lost none of its intensity. To hear him play is to listen to a living apostle, preaching the gospel of Trane.

*(When I bought this album at Taz Records, there was what looked like a tiny nail embedded in the vinyl on this track that I didn't notice right away. When I first played it, it skipped, repeating the same short passage of Sharrock's solo over and over. The skip was so seamless and the music so wild that for a good couple of minutes I didn't realize that the record was skipping, thinking, "Wow, he's really getting into that particular lick!")

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

JOHN HIATT Bring the Family

A&M SP 5158 (1987)

Even if you've never heard of John Hiatt, you've probably heard at least a few of his songs. He's a gifted, prolific songwriter whose tunes have been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Three Dog Night, Bill Frisell, Mandy Moore, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, and Conway Twitty, among others. He's also an entertaining singer and performer who, after being mismarketed as an angry young Elvis Costello/Graham Parker-type rocker during the seventies, enjoyed a career rejuvenation in the eighties and nineties as an affable, Springsteen-esque roots-rocker.

Bring the Family was a true comeback for Hiatt, both commercially and artistically; critics took notice of its stripped-down, live-in-the-studio intimacy, and it became the record that would finally put Hiatt on the map in terms of sales and recognition. The album's production (by John Chelew) has a warm, muted feel which may have seemed out of place in the eighties but has allowed the record to age gracefully. The playing is superb; studio ace Jim Keltner provides supple, imaginative drumming throughout, joined by Nick Lowe on bass and Ry Cooder on lead guitar (this group would record another album in 1992 under the name Little Village).

Hiatt's personal life was on the upswing (he had finally become clean and sober after battling alcoholism for years and had remarried and had a daughter) and it shows in his songwriting; there isn't a bad tune on the album. The album moves smoothly from the percolating grooves of "Memphis in the Meantime" and "Your Dad Did" to country ballads like "Lipstick Sunset" and "Tip of My Tongue" to flat-out rockers like "Thank You Girl". "Thing Called Love" (later a hit for Bonnie Raitt) features some funky guitar interplay between Hiatt and Cooder, and "Have a Little Faith in Me" is Hiatt alone at the piano at his most soulful and vulnerable.

Hiatt went on to record many more well-received albums, but he never made one as perfect as Bring the Family. It's that rare album that presents a complete picture of an artist at a certain point in his life, and, nearly twenty years later, it remains John Hiatt's definitive self-portrait.

Monday, November 07, 2005

THE FALL The Wonderful and Frightening World of...

Beggars Banquet BEGA 58 (1984)

The difference between you and us is that we have brains!

- Mark E. Smith, practicing audience etiquette on the live LP Totale's Turns (It's Now or Never)

I wish I had the ability to create a soundclip of the first thirty seconds of "Copped It", the third track on The Wonderful and Frightening World of... The Fall, so that you could hear it for yourself. Those thirty seconds are all you'd need to form your opinion of The Fall, who are one of those bands which, as the saying goes, people either love or hate. The drummer counts off two quick beats on his sticks, then the band plunges into a hammering eighth-note pattern led by the guitars in A major, while the bassist plays a sludgy blues line in A minor(!). Then singer Mark E. Smith begins ranting (in a key known only to himself) about how he ain't no millionaire but he's spent more money than you'll ever see. If this sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, then you would probably like The Fall. Thirty seconds was all it took for me to decide while hearing this song on Alive from Off Center, an avant-garde TV show that ran on PBS during the mid-eighties hosted by New York performance artist Laurie Anderson. The music was used to accompany a routine by one of those new-wave dance troupes who thrusted their elbows around a lot and wore their underwear on the outside of their clothes, but what they were doing was nowhere near as strange and wonderful as what I was hearing. I proceeded to buy every Fall album I could find, eventually tracking this one down at Track Records in Halifax, N.S.

Mark E. Smith formed The Fall in his home of Manchester, England in 1976 and is the sole remaining original member (click here for a lengthy list of past and present band members). TWaFWo... features the classic lineup of Karl Burns, Craig Scanlon, and Paul and Stephen Hanley, with Smith's then-wife Brix on lead guitar. This album marked the beginning of a period for the band where their sound became more user-friendly and commercial, yet tracks such as the straightforwardly rocking "Lay of the Land" and "2 x 4" lost none of their bite as a result. The band continued to push in abstract, experimental directions; "Bug Day" features Smith rapping grotesque beat poetry over a shifting, warped musical landscape, while "Copped It" combines atonal riffing with doo-wop background vocals. Meanwhile, "Slang King", "Stephen Song", and "Disney's Dream Debased" show off the band's ability to create strangely uplifting music with strangely strange lyrics ("Bright, turn off sign/Swing, 14, turns off, between/Swingo greets lime green receptionist/All here is ace, all here is ace, all here is ace." - from "Slang King").

The Fall continue to record and tour to this day; the line-ups may change, but Smith remains at the helm. If you're curious about their music, there's no lack of it out there; they have one of the hugest discographies of any band currently together. I'd recommend their mid-eighties to early nineties albums as the best place to start your tour of their wonderful and frightening world.

Friday, November 04, 2005


MCA-6129 (1983)

I started reading Doonesbury when I was about 13 or 14 (shortly before this album came out); it wasn't carried in any of the newspapers I had access to at the time, so I relied on the paperback collections that came out once or twice a year. I've read it on and off for more than twenty years since and continue to marvel at how creator Garry Trudeau manages to combine a sophisticated, up-to-the-minute commentary on politics and world events with the development of characters as well-rounded and sympathetic as those to be found in most novels. Oh, yeah, and it's funny, too.

In January of 1983, Trudeau began a hiatus from the strip that would last until October of the following year. During this time, he wrote Doonesbury: A New Musical (with music by Elizabeth Swados). The story concerned the changes that took place in the lives of the characters after graduating college. These changes would be picked up in the strip when it resumed after Trudeau's hiatus, so the musical functioned as a link in the storyline.

Now, there are two biases to which I will admit having before I go any further; 1) I love Doonesbury, the comic strip, and 2) I hate musicals. Maybe "hate" is too strong a word, but they just don't do it for me. I love opera, I love "standards", I have nothing against the American song form, but the musical as art and/or entertainment does not speak to me. These two biases should be kept in mind by you, the reader, when I tell you that this album, despite its relation to one of the greatest comic strips of all time, is not very good. In fact, it's pretty awful. I bought it a few years ago at Loyalist City Coin and Collectibles in Saint John, N.B. for two or three dollars, took it home, played the first side, then filed it away. I have not listened to it again until tonight. In fact, I still haven't listened to the second side.

I think the problem is that Doonesbury is just not the kind of material that lends itself well to the Broadway musical treatment. The tone of the comic strip is usually sardonic (though rarely mean-spirited) and hip (though never condescending). When it comes to punch lines, Doonesbury goes for the knowing chuckle over the belly laugh. I just cannot picture any of the characters in the strip singing these upbeat, exuberant songs (or singing at all, for that matter). In fact, this musical is exactly the kind of thing that the strip delights in skewering through parody (if the whole thing was intended as an ironic joke, it's way too subtle).

It also doesn't help that the whole thing has the unmistakeable stench of the eighties; the synthesized chords at the beginning of the album sound like an outtake from the soundtrack of Revenge of the Nerds, and there's a rap song that sounds exactly like what your boss sounded like when he tried to rap at the office Christmas party last year. And I don't know which of the cast members listed is playing Duke (a character based on famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson), but I guarantee you that if the real Duke heard him, he'd hunt the bastard down for misrepresentation.

As I recall, Doonesbury: A New Musical got pretty good reviews and wide acclaim when it came out, so I guess I don't know anything. Maybe my love for the strip could not overcome my issues with musicals. Or maybe it's just a fact that just because something works well in one medium doesn't necessarily mean it will translate to others.

(After I wrote all this, I finally broke down and listened to side two. Yep, it sucks too.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

STEELY DAN Greatest Hits

MCA 2-6008 (1978)

All night long
We would sing that stupid song
And every word we sang
I knew was true

- from Doctor Wu (Walter Becker/Donald Fagen)

I can't remember how or when this album made it into my collection; it must have been before I bought Citizen Steely Dan, which pulls together all of this band's studio albums up to 1980 and is probably the one indispensible CD box set I own. I do remember hearing Steely Dan on the radio while I was growing up, often sandwiched between other smooth-sounding L.A. rock groups like the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, and Fleetwood Mac. I didn't pay much attention to the lyrics until I was older, which was probably a good thing, considering the kind of subject matter that made it into their songs. To this day, you can still hear Donald Fagen sing about chance homosexual hookups ("Rikki Don't Lose That Number"), drug deals gone sour ("Do It Again"), or wanting "to tour the Southland in a travelling minstrel show" ("Pretzel Logic") on most "classic rock" stations, and hardly anyone seems to notice or fully register what it is he's saying. That's Steely Dan's gift; the ability to take a dark, seedy tale and dress it up in hip keyboards and funky guitars and hang a melody on it that is so insidiously catchy that you don't fully realize what it is you're humming along to at work or in your car until it's too late.

The funny thing is that I probably would never have become hooked on the band's music (which sometimes too closely resembles "lite" jazz) if it weren't for their lyrics (and I'm not much of a lyric man, preferring a catchy hook or rousing leitmotif to yet another tale of love gone wrong (or right)). Let me rephrase that; it's the combination of lyrics and music that grabs me; the way that the music draws you into the words which in turn graft greater depth back onto the music. The songs always seemed to come from a moral place; the band would observe the nastiness and chaos that took place in the world with a compassionate eye, yet they managed to never sound judgmental or condemning (unlike, say, the Eagles).

Most of the songs deal with the disillusionment with life that comes with getting older, which is probably why Steely Dan's music has aged pretty well and actually seems to get better and more relevant with each passing year. The overall feeling is that becoming wiser doesn't necessarily make you happier, in fact it often has the opposite effect. Yet the music refuses to give in to the cynicism of the words, producing upbeat tunes like "Reeling in the Years", "Kid Charlemagne", and "My Old School", in which the speaker eventually finds some sort of satisfaction or peace with himself and/or the world around him, while realizing that such an achievement rarely comes without a price.

Steely Dan was all about the yin and the yang, the good and the bad, the happy and the utterly despondent. If you can find this album, pick it up, but I strongly recommend getting the box set for the full story. And don't neglect those lyric sheets.